One of the topics I like discussing with young athletes is character.  I always get interesting looks from those that think they know what I’m talking about.  By the look of some however, I know this topic is often mentioned but not clearly understood.

The definition of character is: “the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual”.  For me, character is who you are when times get hard.  How do you respond when plan A isn’t working?

One of the many wonderful things about sports is competition.  Competition constantly presents challenges.  And challenges give young athletes opportunities to see what type of character they possess.

During my high school basketball career I was fortunate to stay relatively injury free until my senior year.  I signed with the University of Illinois during the early signing period so before my senior season I had the benefit of knowing where I was going to be playing college basketball.  Good thing too because my senior year would present challenges to my character that would reveal a lot to me.

We were playing Quincy during an early season matchup of two teams ranked among the state’s best.  An all-state shooting guard Jack Kramer led the Quincy Blue Devils.  He was a talented player but dirty in my mind.  We had an altercation the summer before during the Prairie State games where we got into a fight.  I knew going into this game my emotions would be high but I was going to do my best to maintain my composure for my team.

The game starts and we are playing well.  The game was played at the SIU arena, which is home to the Southern Illinois University Salukis.  In high school it was always a treat for me to play in a college arena.  The atmosphere was big time and I had some of my best performances of my career in that building.

I get a steal at mid-court, as I look up no one was in front of me to our basket.  As soon as I began to pick up speed Jack and one of his teammates were hustling back to deny my straight line to the basket.  As I plant to go in for a dunk, Jack plants his foot underneath mine.  To this day I don’t know if it was intentional but his character in previous encounters would suggest that it was.

I tried to jump, stepped on his foot and sprained my ankle badly.  As I was being helped back to the locker room I said to myself that I would get my ankle taped up and be back out on the floor.  Luckily, my trainer did some simple tests to see if I could return.  As the trainer was holding my calf, he did a slight shake of my lower leg.  As he did this my foot dropped about an inch, indicating that I had torn ligaments in my ankle and that I could not return to playing in the game.  The doctor soon came in and confirmed what the trainer already told my mother and me.  I would need surgery to repair the damaged ligaments.

As I sat on the table in tears, my mind began to race.  Would I ever play again?  Will this affect my scholarship to Illinois?  Will I return to the level of play that I currently have after surgery?  The doctor reassured my Mom that he would do his part of repairing the ligaments.  I would need to do my part during post-surgery rehabilitation.

I worked really hard during the summer and pre-season conditioning because I wanted to really enjoy my senior season.  Now I was stuck doing rehab everyday while my teammates were practicing, playing, and moving toward the goals we set as a team.  It was really hard to be at the games and we lost a few games by single digits and this drove me crazy.  It really showed me how I had taken the game for granted before this injury.

I made a decision within the first week of rehab.  I had to work harder in rehab than I did getting ready for the season.  I had to stop feeling sorry for myself and get after it.  Rehabilitation became my game and I tried to win each day I was in there.  I did everything the trainers told me and more.  I attacked it like my life depended on it.

This was the beginning of a life filled with character building moments through sports participation that would define how much success I would enjoy moving forward.

I came back towards the end of the season even stronger than I was at the beginning.  We reached our main goal of making it to the state tournament.  The hard work and character that I developed through this experience allowed me to play at Illinois and enjoy a 10-year professional playing career without even having a serious sprain in that same surgically repaired ankle.

You will face challenges the higher you move up the ladder of playing sports.  You will have setbacks and things not go your way.  How will you respond?  What will your character reveal to you in your darkest hour?

Embrace these challenges because they are coming.  Use them to build your character and strength.  Some of the most important moments in your lives will first appear like something negative.  If you view these as opportunities your character will be stronger over time.

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